I remember the moment well--the moment where the shooting pain hit me in my back and sent me to my knees, unable to breathe. I remember the numbness and tingling I felt in my right foot, and no matter how much I commanded, my foot would not obey. As a physical therapist, I knew exactly what was happening. I just couldn’t believe it was happening to me.
I was young, healthy, active and a dedicated yoga practitioner. How could it be that I had herniated a disc in my lower back? The fear surrounding any significant injury began to surface. The main question in my mind was, “would I be able to stay active and do the things I love doing, the activities that fulfill my soul and inspire me daily?”
The doctor took one look at my MRI (which revealed a significant disc herniation at L5-S1 with nerve root impingement) and told me I would have to modify my activities for the rest of my life. I said “thank you very much” and hung up the phone. Three weeks later, I was pain-free. Five years later, I am working with others to help them overcome their physical injuries and chronic pain using what worked for me--yoga.
Yoga Meets Physical Therapy
Yoga therapy is a long-established and recognized healing modality in India and is now an emerging field in the West. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that yoga was the most effective treatment for chronic lower back pain when compared to conventional exercise. Yoga also was found to significantly reduce pain and improve grip strength in individuals suffering from carpal-tunnel syndrome.
The marriage of physical therapy to yoga is a natural one. With a clear understanding of anatomy and movement science, it became obvious to me that one asana (pose) could accomplish many different things in the body at one time.
Yoga asanas provide a unique method of creating balance in the body and mind where conventional stretching exercises fall short. There is a strong emphasis on alignment and focus on subtle actions that create lasting change from the inside out.
For example, downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana) lengthens the spine, stretches the hamstrings, strengthens the upper body and opens the chest simultaneously. In a traditional physical therapy setting, we tend to focus on one muscle at a time. Yoga can accomplish more with one pose than five separate physical therapy exercises.
The most striking difference between yoga and conventional physical therapy is the attention to breath. Breath is the one thing that connects our minds to our bodies for more conscious movement and awareness. Yoga shifts the body into a more relaxed state by switching from the fight or flight of regular exercise into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the only environment in which the body can heal. For years, I taught patients with back pain “cat/cow” exercises, which gently stretch the spine, and never felt that it provided great relief. Now when I teach the same pose intimately connecting the breath with movement, healing comes naturally.